Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for the Museum of Mines and Missiles

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

In all the fuss about Angkor Wat and the other temples, we often forget that Cambodia is a country which has lived through some terrible times recently. The atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge are within living memory for Cambodians above the age of thirty. We outsiders may associate Khmer Rouge with the 1970s, but the movement only truly died down after Pol Pot died in 1998.

Old missiles line the entryway into the Museum

During the decades that the Khmer Rouge fought the Vietnamese Army (who invaded Cambodia because they were sick of Khmer Rouge raids into their territory), both sides laid hundreds of thousands of landmines in the fields and villages of Cambodia. These landmines are still there - and still cause death and disability to dozens of Cambodians each year. In addition to the landmines, there are unexploded missiles from the carpet-bombing that the US Army conducted to eliminate the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the supply chain of the Vietnamese guerrillas.

We didn't know all this, of course. We landed up in Cambodia purely to see the Angkor temples, quite forgetting to associate Cambodia with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It was only on Day 2, when we were on our way to Banteay Srei, that we spotted the Landmine Museum. The museum gave us a whole new perspective on life in Cambodia.

The Landmine Museum was started by a Cambodian man with the Japanese name of Aki Ra. Aki Ra spent many years as a soldier - first for the Khmer Rouge and later on for the Vietnamese Army. After the UN Accord brought peace of a sort to Cambodia in the early nineties, he started his life's true mission - removing landmines from the villages of Cambodia. Whenever farmers found a suspicious object in their fields, they would call him and he would go 'deal with it' for them. 

Just one of many displays of mines and missiles
The museum contains all the mines and missiles that Aki Ra has removed. A collection of old and rusted mines and missiles might sound boring, but it's not. For one, the sheer number and type of landmines is astounding, as is the number of countries who supplied them. At one point, there were four different groups laying mines in the ground in Cambodia - the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Army, the Thai Army (to protect their borders) and the Cambodian army itself. 

Secondly, Aki Ra is also running a school / orphanage for children who have suffered because of landmine explosions. The museum has their stories - tales of hope that bring a tear to the eye. 

The children created this display of all the different armies who laid mines in their country

Thirdly, the museum has free tour guides who make the experience much more visceral. Our tour guide was an American who, after years of contributing on and off to the work of landmine removal, had come and settled here five years ago to help Aki Ra out. He was absolutely brilliant - his passion for the cause and sheer dedication made the problem so real. 
A poster - the Khmer Rouge used child soldiers

And make no mistake - the problem is real. Three thousand people are currently working in Cambodia, removing landmines. Even with that many people, it's doubtful if all of Cambodia can be cleared of landmines in the next THOUSAND years. Almost every Cambodian knows somebody who has lost their limbs in a landmine explosion - the number used to be in the thousands earlier, but has now come down to less than hundred a year. Cambodian children receive lessons on how to deal with strange metallic-looking things on the ground. 

The tour had some embarrassing moments for us as Indians. Imagine being told that your country is one of a handful that haven't signed the Landmine Ban Treaty. Or that your country is one of the three that still produce landmines (the others are Pakistan and Myanmar). India claims that it can't sign the treaty because we use landmines on the border with Pakistan.

If you're ever in Siem Reap, make it a point to visit this museum. It's a bit away from Siem Reap, but if you're visiting Banteay Srei, then you have no excuse for not dropping in here.
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Anonymous said...

I was 8 or 9 years old when I read about the atrocities in Cambodia. I couldn't understand it. I still can't.
I'm an A to Z minion/helper sauntering through the 'net and checking blogs. Keep on blogging!